In The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar, Andy Smarick and Juliet Squires do a great job explaining the challenges state education agencies face when they try to make lasting reforms. But as they advocate for smaller SEAs that do most of their work through contracts and partnerships, they ignored a significant area where state agencies have a big influence: school health and safety.

For example, in all but three states, SEAs operate the school meals programs. Additionally, they often set licensing requirements for counselors, nurses, social workers and other types of support staff.  They regulate the administration of medication, the amount of time required for daily physical activity, and pesticide use on school grounds.

What’s remarkable about all these important functions is that they already demonstrate areas where SEAs usually do more steering than rowing. And they can teach us a lot about how to apply the 4Cs described by Smarick and Squires.

On many student health issues, SEAs control the policymaking process, while relying heavily on the expertise of their colleagues in other agencies.  When the Michigan State Board of Education updated its Model Policy on Quality Physical Education and Physical Activity in Schools in 2012, staff in the departments of health and education contributed equally to the process. And while the policy made recommendations for setting weekly physical education requirements, it delegated the details of implementation to local school districts.

Many states have highly active and effective advisory committees that help them make decisions about student safety and health. The Kentucky Board of Education School Health Committee includes representatives from the state Chamber of Commerce and a middle school principal, which has helped the SEA increase the number of schools that serve breakfast and get recognized as a Let’s Move! Active School. And SEAs are already using contracts to create safe and healthy school environments. For example, the Colorado Education Initiative, highlighted in the report, is in the process of creating a statewide student health data collection system that will streamline the process at the local level.

Many readers (and even many policymakers) may not be aware of the impact state education agencies have on these important areas—areas that significantly affect student learning. On an average school day last year, 10.8 million low-income children participated in the School Breakfast Program nationally, contributing to increased concentration, alertness, comprehension, memory, and learning among students.  We cannot overlook how school meal programs have dramatically transformed school climates since their launch during the Truman administration. And neither can we overlook how tragic incidents of violence spotlight the need for our schools to work together with community partners to keep schools safe.

If states choose to follow the recommendations of this report, they will not need to create a new set of policy tools. All they’ll need to do is take a page from their own textbook and adopt the procedures they are already using to ensure safe and healthy schools.

- Whitney Meagher

Whitney Meagher is project director of NASBE’s Center on Safe and Healthy Schools.  She can be reached at whitneym@nasbe.org